What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?

WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?, a military mirth misfire from 1966, besides answering its title with “I sure as hell didn’t make a joke out of it”, proved that if producer Blake Edwards was given a large budget to play with, he’d be sure to exceed it, and if directing he was a 50/50 prospect for tempering his taste buds. William Peter Blatty’s script provides setups without payoffs. Good-looking movie is performed with ample energy, but waving your arms and yelling doesn’t automatically equal funny. *

During the WW2 invasion of Sicily, a U.S. Army company assigned to capture a village find themselves welcomed by the town’s compliant population and merry garrison of Italian soldiers. A wine festival turns into a drunken brawl/debauch which unites the two sides. To keep their peace party going schemers ‘Lt. Christian’ (James Coburn) and ‘Captain Fausto Oppo’ (Sergio Fantoni) hatch a plan: stage combat in order to fool high command. Flustered ‘Captain Lionel Cash’ (Dick Shawn) is seduced by local signorina ‘Gina Romano’ (Giovanna Ralli), but then the more serious Germans show up (go figure) and the darn war messes with everyone’s frenzied fraternizing.

Aldo Ray, his leading man days finito, is on hand to lend burly G.I.’ness and a few dopey translations as an Italian-American sergeant; Harry Morgan hams as an officer who gets lost in the catacombs and goes raving bonkers; Carroll O’Connor (festooned with eyebrows swiped from a camel) is an exasperated general, rehearsing his later, funnier turn in Kelly’s Heroes (the rare combat comedy that works). Elevated to lead billing thanks to the previous year’s hit spoof Our Man Flint, Coburn doesn’t have much to do here besides employing that trademark smile:  more focus is put on Shawn’s wilder capering. Just as Coburn’s undercut by having too little, Shawn’s effect is diminished by over-use: Edwards won’t let a gag or bit rest without running it into the ground. Fitful amusement in the first half gives way to tedium and at 119 minutes things sputters to exhaustion in the last quarter. Ralli, 30 in her first Hollywood gambit, is mostly there to be ravishing: missione compiuta. Best in the cast is enthusiastic, handsome and disarming Fantoni, who’d just scored another WW2 side-switch role in Von Ryan’s Express.

Edwards voracious production cost gobbled up $7,000,000 (the expansive town set of ‘Valerno’ alone ate $800,000): the $6,500,000 gross registered a bomb, 42nd in the rollout of 1966.

Henry Mancini scored: the opening march number is pretty good. Doing what they can: Jay Novello, Leon Askin, Vito Scotti, Kurt Krueger, William Bryant and Johnny Seven.

* Military mindset & bureaucracy play better in “service comedies” if they’re not set during actual battle zones. Edwards had successfully steered Operation Mad Ball and Operation Petticoat but this one wobbled (on the Axis?) and four years later he committed financial hara-kiri on 1970’s Darling Lili. The losses nearly foundered Paramount.

As to who is dolt enough to joke about war and what they did in one, those who can summon pioneer spirit to separate the right wing from The Right Stuff may recall the resultant chickenhawk hilarity when two recent American Warriors (Kid Bush and Hair Furor) cracked unwise about their duty calls. Real tough guys.

** Giovanna Ralli’s popularity in Italy, winning acclaim for General Della Rovere, Escape By Night and La fuga, didn’t yield much in her brief Hollywood sojourn, decorating duds The Caper Of The Golden Bulls, Deadfall and Cannon For Cordoba.

 

 

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